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Political defections: cynical opportunism or principled stands?

Ross Hendry


Political defections can be like London buses. You wait ages for one, then two come along at the same time. Natalie Elphicke's defection this week was perhaps a greater shock than that of Dan Poulter's the week before because of where each was perceived to stand within the Conservative Party - one on the right, the other more in the centre.

Both gave their reasons for leaving as disappointment with the Government's performance. On the day of his switch, Mr. Poulter said he was concerned about the state of the NHS under the current Government, and therefore "found it increasingly difficult to look my NHS colleagues in the eye, my patients in the eye, and my constituents in the eye with good conscience." Ms Elphicke stated that “for me key deciding factors have been housing and the safety and security of our borders," but also accused Rishi Sunak more broadly of "broken promises" and abandoning key pledges.

There has been quite a reaction to Ms. Elphicke’s change of party. While both MPs have been criticized by Conservatives, Ms. Elphicke has also come under criticism from many within her new Party. She is a controversial figure to many on the left. In the past her comments about Labour have been robust, but most attention has been on her defense of former husband Charlie, who was convicted in 2020 of sexually assaulting two women.

What Ms. Elphicke's case in particular demonstrates, is that stories such as this can have strange twists and involve mixed motivations and ambitions. They also reveal something about us, as well as about the story's main protagonists.

I wonder what you think about Mr. Poulter and Ms. Elphicke's decision?

The Bible is incredibly insightful in analysing the human heart and suggests at least three reasons that might explain why a politician might switch party.

A political defection might be motivated by self-preservation or ambition. The Bible is clear that this can often be the reason for our actions (Philippians 2:3). A similar reason might be revenge and a desire to damage an opponent (Proverbs 24:29). Reading the account of Saul's demise and David's long ascent to the throne of Israel you will find several characters switching sides for these reasons, and the reaction to Ms. Elphicke's decision to join Labour has certainly focused on both revenge and ambition, with some suggesting she is hoping for a Peerage.

Yet such a significant decision can also be based on principles, values, and a desire to seek the public or common good. Winston Churchill switched parties twice, leaving and then returning to the Conservative Party. More recently, Lisa Cameron left the SNP to join the Conservatives because of the abuse she claimed she faced within her former party.

These examples and many more suggest it is dangerous to rush into a judgement about what is in another person's heart. It might be fun to speculate and there may be lots of evidence that suggests we might be able to make a good guess. But perhaps it is not naïve but generous to seek the good in others, mindful that we are all sinners with mixed motives behind our own actions. It is too easy and too tempting to assume base motives from our politicians.

Recent surveys suggest that half of us do not trust the government, and only 9% believe that politicians can be trusted to tell the truth.[1] I have written before that such a characterisation is not my experience of most Parliamentarians I meet. However, if this is our general view it is easy to see how we can be cynical about particular individuals as well.

I am not suggesting that we give everyone a free pass on their motives all of the time. We need to be as realistic about the human heart as the Bible teaches us to be. But neither should we be so cynical that we write off every action as self-serving.

I will let you reach your own judgment about Mr Poulter and Ms Elphicke based on the evidence of their statements in the last week and how they will serve over the coming months and years.

If we do take a generous view of either person's reasons for switching parties, does this mean that the Labour Party and Keir Stamer are role models of forgiveness, welcoming prodigal sons and daughters? I think it would be a stretch to claim that!

However, the point itself does remind us that acts of a political defection are rarely unilateral decisions. There is the 'defector' and the 'welcomer'. Keir Stamer will have signed-off both MPs becoming members of the Labour Party, and it is right for us to scrutinise his motives as much as theirs. It may be that the Labour Party is building a particularly broad church, full of all the talents. Then again it could just be an opportunity to embarrass the Government. Or it could be both.

Whatever the case, these stories also remind us of the strength and weakness of Chrisitan affiliation to political parties. Parties are broad churches, and they change over time with each new leader. Factions rise and fall in influence, but in our democratic system the main political parties are still the main means of gaining elected office. It is incredibly important that there are Christian voices inside the Party seeking to influence them, just as it is important that there are Christians in many different parties, because no one party is a perfect reflection of God's better story for our society.

That is perhaps another lesson we can draw from political defections. It is helpful and good to find a political party to support, but it should never feel like 'home', because it never will, and never can be. There will be sincere, thoughtful, prayerful, biblically-faithful Christians who are active in all of our main parties. It is right that they are committed to them, working to influence their party's policies and positions, and seeking their electoral success. But allegiance to a Party cannot be unquestioning nor our ultimate loyalty. Paul writes in Philippians 3, “Our citizenship is in heaven”…not in the ranks of Conservatives, Labour or anyone else!

Whatever their personal motivation, Mr. Poulter and Ms. Elphicke have reminded the Christian that however important a party may be, we must be willing to give up our allegiance for something bigger and more important.

If you are a member of a party, or simply find yourself being a strong advocate for a particular leader, ask yourself this question: what could they do that would lose my support? If you have trouble thinking of anything that could alienate your support, perhaps you have elevated the party or leader too high.

Politics is important, but it is not the ultimate thing. We can use politics to honour God and to love our neighbour, and our political parties are a means of doing so. But because no party fully honours God or loves every person as He loves us, we should always be a bit uncomfortable with whatever party we support, and know that there may be good things in others. This is something we will unpack more in our election-related blogs later in the year.

So yes, political defections can be great examples of political shenanigans and selfish motivations. But perhaps they also point us to greater truths and radical challenges: what does it look like to serve Jesus in our political context today?.

[1] Trust in government, UK: 2023’, Office for National Statistics, ‘Trust in politicians reaches its lowest score in 40 years’, Ipsos Mori,

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